Ecclesiastes – A Book for Our Times!
It is one of the tragedies of our times that Ecclesiastes has become something of a forgotten book of the Bible. It’s not simply that forgetting any book of the Bible is very bad theology; but also that this book of wisdom is a gold mine of God’s wisdom, which is more relevant than ever for us today as we navigate our way through life in unusually difficult times.
In our previous studies in the book of James, we noted that God offers wisdom to all who ask Him. Now here in the Old Testament, we see that alongside the books of law, prophecy, history, and poetry are three major books of wisdom.
Let’s ask first of all why they are here at all. That might sound like an odd question, but stop for a moment and consider this. God has inspired the writers of His word to give us teaching that will help us to navigate life wisely. The wisdom literature, should be seen firstly as a sign of the love of God for humanity. It matters deeply that we obey Him (law), that we follow Him (prophecy) and worship Him (Psalms); yet alongside that God also wants our lives to be lived well, for us to thrive and ultimately be happy in eternity with Him for ever.
A European friend of mine was given a beautiful sari by an Indian friend. The rich, patterned cloth was stunning and it was a lovely gift from her culture. Although it was beautiful, it was kind of tricky to put on, it had complex pleats to arrange, and it took a bit of work (and a YouTube instruction video!) to get right. The results after the hard work were really stunning – she looked amazing. The point is that the wisdom literature is a gift from God to us – but it comes from another culture, and so it takes a bit of work for us to really get ‘into’. The results however can make our lives more coherent, beautiful and godly. In these next few Bible studies, I’m going to help to unpack this wisdom book to give you a hand in doing that.
The three main wisdom books of the Old Testament are Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs is the most well-known of these, and contains all kinds of instructions on everything from parenting to marriage to relationships, work, laziness, speech and so much more! It’s in Proverbs that we find things such as, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Job, of course is an extended reflection on the problem of pain and why the righteous suffer, told through the lens of the story of godly man who endures tragedy after tragedy – yet remains faithful to God. Ecclesiastes is different again, because it is the story of one man’s search for meaning in life. Of all the wisdom books, it is the one that comes to us (like that sari!) most cross-culturally as it is derived from the pessimism-literature of the Ancient Near East. Yet, the questions it asks and finally answers speaks directly to everyone in 2020. Is there anything worth living for? Can money, power, possessions, music, art, travel, culture, marriage, sex, family, work, or anything else we find here “under the sun” provide meaning, value and purpose in life.
The opening of chapter one might come as a bit of a surprise to you, if you have never read Ecclesiastes before. “Everything is Meaningless!” is quite a statement! People who only like to dip into the Bible’s texts and live off great verses like “I came to give you life in all its fullness” or “I can do all things through Christ” can find this statement bewildering to say the least. So let’s dig into it and see what the writer, Solomon, (writing as Qoheleth the teacher of wisdom), can possibly mean.
A key phrase which we will meet again and again in Ecclesiastes is “Under heaven”, or “under the sun”. Life is meaningless here, “under the sun”, Qoheleth repeatedly affirms. Ecclesiastes contains a story of a man whose lifelong quest for purpose in life lead him to try all manner of things. As king he had unlimited wealth, power and influence and so was able to fully indulge every taste and whim in his quest. We see him build palaces and gardens, construction projects, artistic endeavors, accumulate of wealth and relationships. Yet each one he says proves to be utterly meaningless here, “under heaven”.
One of the essential elements in a biblical worldview, is that there is a definite distinction between the creator and created things. This is in total contrast to the other religions of the ancient world, to many eastern religions today – and many forms of new-Age philosophies closer to home. For instance, the ancient Egyptians worshiped the sun; but the books of Moses insist that God made the sun and so only He (the invisible God) is worthy of worship. Worshipping created things, rather than the creator is a violation of that foundational biblical idea of a line separating the Creator from His creation. It’s called Idolatry and is most obviously pictured by people bowing down before statues of wood, or gold which according to the prophets, was a central cause of the fall of Jerusalem and exile of God’s people into Babylon.
Consider the parallels here:
Prophets: Bowing to created things. Is sin. Angers God. Brings judgement
Wisdom: Living for created things. Is folly. Saddens God. Brings emptiness.
Together we can see that worshipping and living for our creator God is the only viable way to live. That is because only He is worthy of worship! Worshipping something created is both sin and folly. It is sin, because it puts something else in God’s place, and it is folly because nothing else can ever adequately take His place. Qohelth tried to find meaning in money, sex, power, art, creativity – and each and every one of his quests lead him to despair. Not one of these things provided meaning for him, “under heaven”.
My friend, the Christian writer and philosopher Andy Bannister, notes that the quest for meaning in life was major element in Greek philosophy. They wrestled with the question about whether life had a purpose or not. The Stoics thought that life did have a purpose (a logos), but that it was hidden from us, so we should just battle on. The Epicureans thought that there was no logos so we should just seek pleasure. That’s why John’s gospel, addressed first to Greeks begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” The Word of course, is the Logos! John continues, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us!”. It means that the quest for meaning cannot be found “under heaven” because meaning is only found in the uncreated word of God, Jesus Christ! He made the world, and then quite amazingly comes and joins us in it. The creator joins His creation. There can be no meaning found “under heaven”, but Jesus (the Logos, the word, the meaning and point of it all), has come down from heaven to us!
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:15-17)
Perhaps that sounds a bit abstract to you. So let’s bring it right down to earth. Who or what are you living for? What is at the very center of your life? If you are a Christian you will already know that the correct answer to that question is that only God is worthy of the central place in our lives. Knowing the right answer and actually loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength are two different things however.
So ask yourself these questions. Where does your mind go when you are alone? What is your first thought in the morning? What gives you energy? What things fill your ambitions and aims? What actually motivates you to live today? What could you not face life without? What is the decisive factor when you make decisions? What do you long for most in life? What things are you willing to sacrifice time, money, and effort most joyfully for? What trly drives you?
If in truth the answer to those questions is something created, something here ‘under the sun’ then there is an issue of idolatry that you need to confess to God right now. Jobs, money, family, music, sport, your home, children, health…. All these are good things which come from God and which can be enjoyed in life with thanksgiving. But the minute they take God’s place on the throne of your heart they become toxic.
Join me again next time as we chart ‘the teacher’ on his quest for wisdom, as he works his way through all manner of folly, and finally into wisdom. And let’s do so, knowing that while this book can be a great corrective to us, it is a sign of God’s love that he wants to warn us of dangers, point us in the right way, and pour blessings into our lives; both now and in all eternity. God redeems us from all our sins and follies, and set our feet on the rock!
Glory to GOD!
Angela Courte MacKenzie is a broadcaster, pianist, vocalist, and worship leader. Her music has traveled all over the world through her Facebook live events and The Power of Praise program as a witness to the glory of God. Angela holds a B.A. degree in music/vocal performance from the University of Central Florida, and a M.A. in apologetics from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Her desire is to awaken hearts to Christ through music, Bible Teachings, blogs, one 2 one chats, the gifts of laughter and simply life in “real time.”
To find out more about Angela visit www.angela.org. To hear her music and other offerings visit her YouTube channel www.youtube.com/angelacourtemackenzieofficial.